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Cubs skipper sees progress in Kyle Hendricks' latest start

CHICAGO -- Joe Maddon is a glass-half-full kind of guy -- especially if that glass contains a postgame adult beverage -- so it isn’t surprising the Chicago Cubs manager was upbeat about the performance of starter Kyle Hendricks on Friday.

The right-hander, who lasted just 3 1/3 innings in his last start against the Chicago White Sox, survived a rough first inning to allow three runs on seven hits over five innings. He left trailing, but the Cubs rallied late behind a strong bullpen effort and an opportunistic offense for a 5-3 comeback win over the Atlanta Braves.

Before the game, Maddon said he wanted Hendricks to throw more strikes and get more ground balls.

“The beginning was just a little bit sketchy, but then he did settle into that guy,” the manager said. “I saw a better down angle, I saw the ball down better, I saw some called strikes that they didn’t like, which only means that the ball is moving back over the plate.

“Leading up to his next start, he’s got to feel good about it. I think he’s starting to feel where he had been and it’s going to benefit him and us next start.”

That remains to be seen, but the mood in the clubhouse wouldn’t have been so upbeat without four scoreless innings by four relievers -- Jason Motte (who got the win to move to 8-1), Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon (22nd save) -- to allow the offense to rally.

Hendricks wasn’t as upbeat about his performance as his manager.

“It was better,” he said. “It’s still a little frustrating.”

The biggest issue was the first inning. The first two batters, Nick Markakis and Cameron Maybin, had well-struck singles early in the count to put runners on the corners. Freddie Freeman then followed with a grounder to first base. Despite not playing in, Anthony Rizzo decided to throw home and Markakis slid in just ahead of the tag attempt by Miguel Montero.

With runners on first and second and still no outs, the inning quickly could have gotten out of hand. But Hendricks rebounded to strike out the next two batters, then got Pedro Ciriaco to ground out to end the inning.

“That was huge,” Maddon said. “That was absolutely necessary right there to get out of there with one run.”

Hendricks credited the Braves with being aggressive early and swinging at the first pitch. “From the start of the game, they were ambushing a little bit,” he said. “I was making good pitches actually. The Maybin single, it got a little more plate, but it was down with movement. After that, I just kept telling myself, ‘Keep making good pitches, stay in the moment here and just try and get out of it,’ and I was able to do that.”

Montero, who usually is a blunt truth-teller with the pitchers, had a different opinion. “They hit a lot of first pitches that were not good pitches,” he said. “We talked about it and I said, ‘That first pitch has to be a good quality pitch. Just don’t throw a strike. Make sure you throw a quality pitch. If you do that, you’ll get a quick out.’ He did a good job and made good pitches after that.”

The Cubs trailed 3-1 when Hendricks exited, so he kept them close enough to rally. The offense scored an unearned run in the fifth and took the lead in the sixth on back-to-back run-scoring doubles by Kris Bryant and Montero.

That again made a winner out of Motte, who worked a scoreless sixth. When informed of the hard-throwing reliever’s 8-1 record, Maddon said, “Is he really? I’ve got to get him out there more often, man.”

That hasn’t been a problem lately with the Cubs starters -- with the exception of ace Jake Arrieta -- struggling through a rough turn of the rotation this week. Jason Hammel and Jon Lester both were roughed up in the two-game series against the Detroit Tigers.

Maddon, though, said he is unconcerned about his starters.

“They’re healthy and they’re not overworked,” he said. “They were on a nice roll, they hit a little bit of a speed bump but we’re going to get back on a good roll again because they’re healthy and they’re not overextended.”